Ever since Mitch and Matt first summited Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainier, they have been itching to go back. As luck would have it, the opportunity presented itself and they decided to give it another go, this time inviting me to join them.
While fairly experienced in the outdoors, this was my first time on a big mountain and only my second time ever ice climbing. But our window for good ice and decent weather was closing and on a couple weeks notice, I decided to yes say and join them on this epic adventure...
We made the 14 hour journey up from Salt Lake City, stopping off in Seattle to grab some gear from our buddies at BEYOND CLOTHING. After getting the royal treatment at their HQ and shoring up the gaps in our laying system, we drove another 3 hours back down to the National Park to get a late evening start from Paradise.
Our plan was to summit in 2 days via the Kautz route. But due to heavy cloud cover and minimal visibility on the way up, we found ourselves drastically off course and way behind on our timetables. To make matters worse, all the recent closures due to COVID left the park empty for weeks, so any boot path to follow was basically non-existent.
Using only our GPS and the 20 feet of visibility we had, we found ourselves crossing the Nisqually Glacier at the treacherous top end, instead of circumventing the massive crevasses by crossing on the lower end. While this did provide some breathtaking views into these icy, cavernous, deathtraps, it also exposed us to some unexpected hazards, such as falling boulders the size of passenger cars.
After navigating the glacial labyrinth for several hours, we were able to push upward and gain elevation. We made camp just before dark at about 10,500 feet, below the relative safety of Camp Hazard. The wind howled most of the night, but the exertion and danger of the day allowed us to sleep fairly well. Still set on reaching the summit in our allotted time, we got an early alpine start, waking at 3am to boil water and consume some much needed calories.
As the sun rose behind the clouds, the winds had diminished and a light snow took their place. In the dim light of the morning, we set out to find our next waypoint called "The Sneak". It's an easy to miss entry point to the Kautz Ice Chute, tucked away amidst the rocks and snow. Wiggling our way under and around the rocky outcroppings and overhangs, we found ourselves standing before an indomitable incline of ice and snow. We had finally made it to the crux of our journey.
With a beguiling break in the weather, we simul-climbed the first pitch under perfectly blue skies. The unexpected warmth of the sunshine emboldened us to shift over to a more technical and challenging aspect on the edge of the chute, rather than high-daggering up the center. Matt led the climb, expertly negotiating the Water-Ice III pitch to secure the top rope for Mitch and myself.
Though still very inexperienced in ice-climbing, the previous day and a half spent on crampons and ice tools seemed to help ease my usual fear of heights. Perhaps it was the full immersion to the environment that made me more comfortable. Or perhaps it was out of necessity. But either way, climbing this pitch was easily the highlight of the trip for me.
As we prepared for our next 40 meter pitch, the clouds resumed their station and the wind began to pick back up. By the time we crested our fourth and final pitch, we found ourselves in complete white out conditions with 60-70mph sustained winds. Not to be deterred, we dug in our ice tools and clung to the mountain as it tried to blow us back the way we came. The plan was to hunker down, wait out the storm, and press on to our objective.
Quickly realizing we were fully exposed, we took inventory of our situation. Based on our current estimated elevation, (~13,000 ft) our rate of travel (about 1000ft/hr) and the amount of daylight we had left, we decided that a retreat was the only viable option. It's always difficult making the call to "play it safe". But potentially down climbing in the dark, with high winds, and zero visibility, was not a task any of us were physically or mentally up for at that point. Sometimes, we have to make an honest assessment of ourselves and our situation, though it is all too easy to let our pride and ego get in the way.
Downtrodden but not defeated, we carefully rappelled our way back down and cautiously navigated through the storm back to our campsite. After another cold and windy night, we broke camp at 4am to begin the long trek back under perfectly clear skies.
Heading down the mountain was relatively uneventful, aside from finally being able to see the full majesty of the landscape that was entirely shrouded on the way up. This was perhaps the consolation prize for all our efforts. Getting to see and experience the mountain for all it's worth (the good and the bad) was more than enough of a reward for me.
Until next time, Mt. Rainier...
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